“The most disagreeable time I have experienced.” That’s how William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) described his first winter in the Pacific Northwest. Many of us who are still shaking off memories of the rainiest winter on record know exactly how he felt.
This, more than any summer in recent memory, is going to be a season for the outdoors. And that is where we’ll focus our summer wines: on bottles appropriate for campground picnic tables, all-day barbecues or plain old patio pounding.
Let’s begin with Riesling, Washington’s most widely planted white variety. Much of our state’s reputation for wine comes from Riesling, thanks to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ championing of the grape. Styles run the gamut from very dry to very sweet, with many producers now indicating sweetness level on their bottles’ back labels. Riesling also has naturally high acidity levels and tends toward low alcohol levels. When a good Riesling is given a hard chill on a hot day, it conveys a deeply refreshing character.
Sémillon is a historically important, criminally overlooked variety in Washington, and summertime is the perfect season to explore this grape. The best versions are bone dry and combine fig and pear fruit with bright, limey acidity. They tend to be medium-bodied, and they’re often blended with Sauvignon Blanc (for even more acidity).
We’re in the middle of a rosé revolution in Washington. Gone are the clunky, sugary afterthoughts designed more for winery cash flow than for consumer pleasure, replaced with a host of dry, crisp, low-alcohol wines perfect for the hottest time of the year. Washington vintners make rosés from all manner of red grapes, but the most consistently successful versions have come from Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Franc.
For our summertime red, I’d like to present an unlikely candidate: Zinfandel. While it’s more intuitive to recommend lighter-bodied reds like Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir, there are two problems. First, those are niche grapes at best in Washington (now, if we lived in Oregon, it would be a different story). And second, recommending light-bodied reds ignores the fact that we eat a lot of robust food over the summer. Consider what comes off the grill—rib-eye steaks and cheeseburgers, smoked pork shoulder and lamb kebabs—and think about whether your delicate Pinot might not be overwhelmed. Rich, ripe, generous Zinfandel: That’ll stand up to all that charcoal-kissed goodness.
“O! The joy!” is perhaps the most famous William Clark quote of all (written in his journal immediately after “Ocian [sic] in view!”*) When it comes to Seattle summers, it’s “oh, the joy” indeed.
*Unfortunately for Clark, what he had actually spotted was not the ocean but instead part of the Columbia River. The expedition was still 20 punishing miles from the coast. Buzzkill.
Paul's picks for summer:
2014 L’Ecole No. 41 Semillon, ($14) Marty Clubb of Walla Walla–based stalwart L’Ecole No. 41 has long been a champion of Washington Sémillon. His version is the standard-bearer, coming from a sextet of vineyards across the state and mixing pear, melon and lime fruit on a balanced, medium-bodied frame. The waxy texture, the figgy subtleties: unmistakably Sémillon. PAIRS WITH: Zucchini blossoms. Stuff those beautiful yellow flowers with mint- and basil-spiked ricotta mixed with Parmesan and egg, then dip in beer batter and shallow-fry.
2014 Tempus Cellars Riesling, Evergreen Vineyard ($18) Cool, chalky Evergreen Vineyard in the Ancient Lakes AVA has built a sterling reputation for growing some of the best white grapes in the state, and none more so than Riesling. A number of wineries work with Evergreen Vineyard Riesling, but one of the most consistently successful versions is winemaker Joe Forest’s bottling for Walla Walla–based Tempus Cellars. It is also one of the driest Rieslings made from Evergreen fruit, with just a kiss of residual sugar to the white peach and blood orange fruit, perfectly balanced by bright acid and stony minerality. PAIRS WITH: Grilled husked corn on the cob, slathered in a jalapeño aioli.
2015 Tranche Cellars Pink Pape, Blackrock Vineyard ($18) Andrew Trio of Walla Walla–based Tranche Cellars produces this gorgeous rosé from a blend of Rhône varieties: Grenache (46 percent), Cinsault (31 percent) and Counoise (23 percent). The wine, made from grapes that come entirely from the winery’s estate Blackrock Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, pours into the glass pale pink, and offers a mix of fruits (watermelon, strawberry), minerals and green tones (cucumber). This is the promise of summer in a glass. PAIRS WITH: The bold flavors of garlic and meaty texture of eggplant in baba ghanoush are perfect foils to this rosé.
2014 Two Vintners Zinfandel, StoneTree Vineyard ($30) Zinfandel is much more frequently seen in California than in Washington. That’s because it’s a highly thermophilic (heat-loving) variety, requiring an awful lot of sunshine to ripen properly. Few vineyards in our northern clime fit the bill. The most suitable site may be StoneTree Vineyard, which sits at the top of the Wahluke Slope AVA with a perfect south-facing slope that catches every possible ray of sun, all summer long. Woodinville-based Two Vintners winemaker Morgan Lee lets Zin be Zin. That means eye-popping alcohol levels (16.9 percent) and a brambly, savory palate that comfortably carries the alcohol without excessive heat.
PAIRS WITH: A grilled cheeseburger and a slug of Zinfandel are as close to the quintessential American food-and-wine pairing as you can get. Cue fireworks.